Easter Break in the Alps

Coming from the U.S. and a non-religious family, I never thought about Easter all that much once I grew up and stopped having Easter egg hunts. But in Europe, the Easter weekend is a major holiday, a kind of spring break of sorts. Even in places that are no longer particularly religious (or, no longer very observantly religious), Good Friday and Easter Monday are often off from work, making a long weekend for family, friends, and maybe travel. Many people tack on a day or more on either side, or take the whole next week off.

If you follow any Scandinavian or Finns, you probably saw pictures of their Easter holidays spent skiing (cross-country, downhill, or touring), snowmobiling, ice fishing, and getting sunburnt up north. This always makes me jealous – the days are getting long up there, the sun is warm, and there’s still snow to play in. Exhibits A, B, and C.

This year we decided to go to the Valais, one fo the parts of Switzerland with the highest mountains, for our Easter weekend. We arrived Thursday night just in time to take in the views across the valley from our AirBnB. Clearly, this was going to be a nice time.

We were staying in Riederalp, a car-free village accessible by cablecar. The offseason had begun and many hotels and restaurants were closed. There were tourists, but only a few to add to the less than 500 people who live there (some of whom were certainly off on their own holidays in warmer places). Our rented apartment was between the two village centers, and so very quiet. This was exactly what I needed. Every morning we would wake up and have a coffee on the porch looking at this view and how the light changed on the mountains.

Riederalp is just below a ridge, and if you hike up there you are offered a view of the Aletsch glacier, the largest one in the Alps. It’s 23 kilometers long, surrounded by 4000-meter mountains, and by 2100 is predicted to lose 90% of its 27 billion metric tons of ice.

The “Aletsch Arena,” as the greater area has billed itself, is one of the big tourist draws. But we realized that it wasn’t the perfect time of year to have all kinds of adventures.

Riederalp is on the south side of the ridge and much of the snow had melted even at 1900 meters where we were staying. I thought maybe that meant we could make a trail running loop around the closest small mountain, but once we got going, reality set in. There was kind of a lot of snow.

This was one of those days where I made a plan and Steve was maybe not thrilled to be tagging along with my bad plan.

Still, part of the reason I had wanted to go to the mountains – other than the extreme happiness I get from just looking at them – was to do some running with vertical, as I’m training for a trail running race in the Alps in July. So I tried to make better plans. A few days, we ended up hiking/running on the “Winterwanderweg” winter hiking trails.

These were pretty high up, so the views were spectacular. They were also packed down – occasionally groomed, and then walked on by people in boots and sometimes snowshoes. Depending on whether the snow was still frozen or soft and slushy, this made it quite challenging running, either sliding around or constantly stretching your ankles in different directions as your feet landed in frozen ruts. It wasn’t the most fun running and by the end of the last day my ankle was sore, but at the same time it was the most fun running, because who can argue with this scenery!?

Two other days, I mapped out routes of about 20 km each that we hiked/ran. Both had a lot of vertical, and some snow patches despite my attempts to route down to lower elevations. The first was through villages and involved losing and then gaining about 1000 meters of elevation to get back to our porch, and it pretty much destroyed me.

The other was a new favorite loop following two local trails, the “Massaweg” and the “Hexeweg”, which curved over singletrack around the side of a mountain and then down a stream valley.

Anyway, we certainly got in some miles and some vertical.

But the nicest part of the holiday in many ways was just being quiet and not worrying too much about work. Sleeping late, sitting on the porch and looking at the mountains. We took some walks around the near-empty village and wondered what it would be like to have a place here. What it would be like to grow up here. What it was like to live here 200 years ago.

Spring is a great time to stop and take a breath. And this was a great place to take that breath.

“I Contain Multitudes”: Microbiomes, Ecology, a Book Review, and Speculation

IMG_5214

Perfect with a negroni.

What is the measure of a good science writer?

Both my boyfriend and I – one of us a scientist, the other not – adore reading Ed Yong’s columns in The Atlantic. That might be a pretty good measure, and it is one that Yong passes with flying colors: both the experts in fields he writes about, as well as nearly everyone else, are happy when he puts words on the internet.

(His Valentines tweets are no exception. I’m trying not to get sidetracked, but it’s hard, and that link is worth clicking, I promise.)

Nevertheless, when Yong’s first book, I Contain Multitudes, was released, I wasn’t that thrilled.

It’s about the microbiome, and I just wasn’t that excited to read about the microbiome. It seemed very of-the-moment, very bandwagon-y. As an ecologist I was kind of sick of hearing about the microbiome, and of people asking me whether my study organism’s microbiome might explain X or Y thing I had found about it.

Like, I’m studying all these complicated non-microbial things about my organism’s ecology, and I’m supposed to somehow have all the skills, techniques, and equipment to also understand its microbiome? Please go away. That’s so too much to ask.

Anyway, this month I finally read the book, and boy was I wrong.

The book was great.

And the microbiome is fascinating.

It was a delightful read, and among the reasons is that Yong describes perfectly some fundamental things about being an ecologist. Take this passage, for example:

“Here is a strange but critical sentiment to introduce in a book about the benefits of living with microbes: there is no such thing as a ‘good microbe’ or a ‘bad microbe’. These terms belong in children’s stories. They are ill-suited for describing the messy, fractious, contextual relationships of the natural world…. All of this means that labels like mutualist, commensal, pathogen, or parasite don’t quite work as badges of fixed identity. These terms are more like states of being, like hungry or awake or alive…”

For any scientist who has found a result, then explored seemingly the same situation over again and got a completely different result, this passage will spark a laugh or sigh of recognition.

It can seem like everything in ecology is context-dependent. Sometimes we can demonstrate what context matters and how the mechanism operates; other times it’s just a nice way of saying, we have no idea what’s going on.

Anyway, through Yong’s typically-excellent storytelling and the way I could identify with the scientists he profiled – men and women, young and old, at universities and zoos and NGO’s and research institutes around the world – I became immersed in tales about microbes.

As Yong points out, microbes were everywhere when multicellular life evolved. So we multicellular beings evolved with them. They made our lives easier, in some ways; and we helped them get ahead. Sometimes the relationship is good for everyone, sometimes not. But with microbes all around us for millions upon millions of years, the relationship is inevitable.

And so we have incredible interactions.

Of course, there are all the microbes in our guts: the gut microbiome, which is discussed all the time, it seems. Ours are worse than they used to be, worse than hunter-gatherer societies, worse if we eat more highly-processed food. This influences our health in so many ways.

But there are also more seemingly-fantastical things.

Microbes that help squids glow, canceling out the shadow that predators might see from below against the night sky, and thus protecting them from death! That makes a brilliantly intelligent cephalopod which just happens to be bioluminescent.

Mice that have gut microbes that help them eat creosote without any ill effects! Cute little fairy tail creatures that can eat a poison pill and just keep on going.

Another charming example? Having a pet, and a dog in particular, is one of the best ways to have a healthy, robust, microbiome. The pet brings microbes into the house from its travels outdoors, and those microbes become your microbes. I’m tallying up all the possible justifications for why we should get a dog, and this is a great one to add to the list! We need a dog because, science.

(Also on the list is that a dog can help you decide author order on papers. I mean, there are other ways, but let’s get a dog.)

Some stories are discouraging, like how a microbes help mountain pine beetles process and disarm the chemical defenses of trees, and thus to kill vast swathes of forest in North America. I thought I knew a fair bit about pine beetle devastation, but this was new to me.

Others stories are hopeful, however.

One of my favorites was a story about researchers trying to combat dengue fever. They raise mosquitos with a bacteria living inside them which makes them resistant to the dengue virus. And now they are letting those mosquitoes loose: they started in Australia, and went door to door to convince neighborhood residents to foster the new mosquitoes, even though most people would say “no way” if you asked whether you could drop some extra mosquito larvae next to their house. Bzzzzzz.

Just by carrying a bacteria, mosquitoes as a vector of this particular disease might be a thing of the past, at least in some places.

Yong also highlighted the work of Dr. Jessica Green, who was a new-ish professor in my department at University of Oregon back when I worked as a technician there.

Green studies the microbiome of buildings. It’s fascinating stuff, and even more interesting when you get to hospitals: leaving the window open to let natural microbes in might help fight off the bad microbes that give so many hospitalized people infections.

Thanks to microbes, there are simple interventions that might make a big difference in people’s lives. Our modern way of living and germ-phobic worldview has broken many of the relationships we used to have, but we are learning more and more about which ones we should preserve or restore. And it’s leading us to create new ones, too.

Along the way, I also began to think about a lot of things not covered in the book.

(I Contain Multitudeswas published in 2016, so a lot of science has happened since then in this rapidly-advancing field.)

For example, how might the microbiome alter human performance? The first thing that popped to mind was sleep. I have pretty much always been terrible at sleeping. I have a hard time falling asleep at night, and sometimes my sleep is restless.

In many aspects of life, sleep is vitally important. I think back to my time as an athlete: rest is one of the most important aspects of training, but if you aren’t sleeping well, you’re missing some of it. I definitely was.

Since 2016, some science has come out suggesting that lack of sleep alters your gut microbiome, and that the relationship also goes the other way, that your microbiome affects the process leading to sleep. But it’s hard to parse this research and assess its quality. I need someone like Yong to do that for me, and condense the reliable findings down into something digestible (see what I did there?).

In fact, I wondered about how the microbiome might affect athletes more generally. People doing a lot of training would benefit from all sorts of specific adaptations, including to diet and metabolism. Do microbes help in that? Does having the wrong microbiome hold you back?

Here, too, there has been a bit of research. For example, Outside wrote up a piece where they had seven elite athletes get their gut microbiomes sequenced. They found plenty of deviation from the average American, but as you can read in the piece, what did that actually mean? Hard to say. There is still so much we don’t know about microbes and which ones do what.

Another recent paper found that rugby players had increased prevalence of microbes that with functions that increased muscle turnover. This approach, looking at “metabolic phenotyping” and metabolomics rather than only the composition of the kinds of microbes, might be more informative. However, because the athletes in the study ate different diets than the non-athletes, it’s hard to totally understand the implications of such differences.

Still, I’m interested in work like this. What would it say about endurance athletes?

Something to remember, though, is that even if we figured out that the human gut microbiome could be used to get better athletic performances or to maintain a better training load, it might be hard to act on that information.

In humans, there are still few silver bullets for the microbiome. Knowing that a microbe is good isn’t enough. In many cases, a microbe can be helpful or protective in one context but harmful in another (for instance if it reaches too-high abundance).

And it’s also hard to deliver a microbe into the gut and have it take hold.

One of the first stories I heard about the microbiome was about fecal transplants, which were used with great success to reset some people’s guts and solve major, seemingly-unsolvable health problems. It was on a podcast, although I now can’t remember which one. It was a wild story.

Yong writes about this, too. But he points out something researchers have learned in the years since the first fantastic results using fecal transplants to cure people of aggressive diseases.

The reason that fecal transplants work so well with some diseases is that the native gut flora has been pretty much wiped out by the combination of the disease and the antibiotics used to treat it in its initial stages.

“This pharmacological carpet-bombing clears many of the native bacteria from their guts,” Yong writes of patients with Clostridium difficileinfections who receive fecal transplants. “When a donor’s microbes arrive in this wasteland, they find few competitors, and certainly few that are as well adapted to the gut as they are. They can easily colonise… ‘you can’t just infuse microbes into people and expect a transplant to happen’, says [gastroenterologist Alexander] Khoruts.”

So even if we knew of a silver-bullet microbe that would help you metabolize or do something else to perform better, could we get it to colonize an athlete’s gut? Unclear.

In the end, if you want a healthier microbiome, a lot of it probably just comes down to eating a healthy, diverse diet, and having healthy habits. And that’s what athletes should be doing anyway.

I wonder if the best way to have your microbiome help your athletic career is just to do a bunch of things that you already know you should do. Eat well. Sleep. Hug the people you care about.

Here’s my final take about the measure of a science writer. A good writer can make you understand things you’re already familiar with in a whole new light.

An entire research group in my department studies the aphid-Buchnerasystem.

Aphids are small insects that like to live on, for example, pea and bean plants. Buchnera are bacteria that live inside the aphids; they got there over 200 million years ago, and each strain of aphid has its own strain of Buchnera. The bacteria produce amino acids that they don’t get from their main food source, phloem. And there’s another microbe, Hamiltonella defense, that protects the aphids against parasitoid wasps, which lay their eggs in an aphid and whose larvae gradually consume them from the inside out, turning them into “mummies”. (Yeah, it’s gross.) Different Hamiltonella strains have different protective abilities and costs.

I can’t tell you how many research talks I have listened to about aphids. Usually, it has just seemed complicated and confusing – even when my friends and close colleagues are explaining it.

But when I read Yong’s description of the study system in his book, all of a sudden, the whole thing made sense to me. First of all what was going on, and secondly why it was fascinating. I will look at my colleagues’ projects differently, and with a lot more interest.

If that isn’t the measure of science writing success, I’m not sure what is.

You can purchase I Contain Multitudes at Powell’s or your favorite independent bookseller.

Women Get Cited Less. What Can We Do About It?

A few weeks ago, a paper came out about the fate of research papers in ecology and evolution (my field!) pre- and post-publication, comparing outcomes between male and female authors.

I want to focus on just one aspect of their nuanced analysis (you can read the whole paper here for free). In this section, the authors gathered citation data on over 100,000 papers published in 142 journals in our field.

They found a slight, but significant, difference in how often papers by men and by women got cited. On average, controlling for the impact factor (a proxy for quality[1]), papers by women accrued 2% less citations.

A hundred thousand papers! That’s a lot, and it’s why the authors could detect this small difference. The sample size allowed them to do a quite powerful analysis.

It also revealed some interesting interactions. For example, papers with female last authors (which often indicates seniority or leadership of the research group) were cited less than those with male last authors at high impact journals, but the effect was reversed at low-impact journals.

Because more people cite papers in high-impact journals, this meant that overall, women were cited less often. [2]

I guess this shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it’s not something I had seen data about before, and consequently something I hadn’t really thought about.

But it is something that matters. Like it or not, citations are a metric of success that is easy to measure, and therefore whether others cite your work is a good piece of evidence that you’re a valuable scientist when you’re up for a job position, tenure, or an award. It’s not great for women if there is bias preventing them from doing well on this metric. [3]

Sounds About Right

Like a lot of research and headlines about challenges facing women in science, this got me mad. I’m a feminist, and this stuff pisses me off.

I see the experiences of my female friends and colleagues, and see when they are treated differently than their male peers. Not always, of course, but enough to make a pattern of our own anecdotal experience.

Then there’s the fact that in my study topics, almost every giant in the field is a man. The ones that defined the discipline and published the equations in a top journal? Men. There are women there, doing great work, but they are less famous.

When data on various aspects of academic life backs up our experience it’s like, “yup, sounds about right.”

Academia is harsh on most people; it’s a place with a lot of rejection, high standards, low pay, job insecurity, and so many power dynamics. The fact that academic science is even harder on women is just not fair.

And that’s not getting into the more complex and devastating nature of the structural problems in academia, which are even worse for other minorities, especially minority women. This paper found that on average women are cited 2% less than men; how much less often are minority women cited?

Anyway, I read this paper, and I was mad.

What I Did Next

Being mad doesn’t accomplish all that much. I tried to think about what we, in our daily lives as scientists, could do to work against this problem.

As an individual early-career scientist, I can only do a very little bit about peer review outcomes or paper acceptances.

But citations? That’s different. I am always writing papers, and I am always citing others’ work. I realized that this was a small step I could take to try to contribute to supporting female scientists. It sounds trivial, but I can cite their work. Could we all do this?

I brought this idea to our lab group, and was curious what they would think.

Some colleagues immediately recognized that this was a problem, and something we don’t think about enough. There are a handful of big names in our subfield, and we mostly cite them over and over. But do we need to do that? Are their papers that we cite every time actually the most relevant? Maybe not. There is probably a lot of work being done around the world we could cite that instead, or at least in addition to the now-traditional canon.

Another common reaction was for someone to say that they don’t think about the gender of authors when they search for papers, read them, or cite them. Here it diverged: a few people said, “I don’t think about it and now I realize that I should.” Others said, “I don’t think about the gender of authors when I’m citing them, therefore I’m not part of this problem.”

I challenged this statement. Does that really mean you’re not part of the problem? Maybe not, I said – and if not, that’s great for you, good work! But instead of assuming that not consciously citing more papers by men means no harm is done, check your reference list on the paper you’re writing. What’s the author breakdown? Do you think this strategy is really working?

I don’t think I was popular for making this callout.

Rubber Meets the Road

As I mentioned in a tweet a few weeks ago, “caring means walking the walk.”

In my paper-reading project, I track the gender of the authors I read, and I found that I am reading fewer papers by women than by men. I was curious about what the ratio might be of the papers I end up citing.

I went through the references section of my current manuscript with a blue and a pink highlighter (I know, supporting stereotypes, etc., it was lazy). The results were not pretty.

I was frankly surprised at how few of the papers I had cited were by women. I knew it wouldn’t be 50/50 for a lot of reasons (discussed below), but I didn’t think it would be that bad.

I basically proved to myself that in order to cite women, you have to do it on purpose. Just not intentionally excluding them isn’t enough.

It’s like how colorblind policies don’t work. Not intentionally doing harm is not the same thing as not doing harm. As Evelyn Carter writes about claiming to be colorblind with respect to race, “if you ‘don’t see’ race, but you say you care about inclusion, how can you advance inclusion efforts that will effectively target communities of color?”

There is a lot of unconscious bias and systematic barriers that lead us to contribute to inequality. Working for equality and to recognize contributions made by women and minorities means actively working to overcome those unconscious biases and systematic barriers.

Shifting the Balance

After my discouraging experiment with the highlighters, I went through the paper and looked at the places I had cited different work. In some places, I was able to find a paper by a woman that I could cite instead – and often even one that supported my point even better than the paper I had cited originally.

That was the most delightful aspect of this task I had set out for myself: I discovered papers in my core area of study, that were by women and that I had never read. And they were really good and very interesting!

The point of reading and citing work by women isn’t just to check boxes and give women a fair shot at career metrics. The main reason is to do better science. Science is creative; it involves having ideas, being exposed to new things, thinking outside whatever box you’re in. Reading work by more different people will necessarily help that process.

I’m really glad that I found these new-to-me papers.

As I discussed with a different colleague later, a lot of this issue comes down in part to poor citation practice, which is endemic across academia. We cite something because everyone else cites it, even though maybe we haven’t read the whole paper. Or we cite something because it’s already in our reference library and we are in a hurry. I’m completely guilty of this, and I’m quite sure everyone else I work with is, too.

If we spent more time reading, and more time looking for and getting familiar with other work that’s related to what we’re doing, I think all of our papers would have much more diverse author lists – at least in terms of evenness and not being dominated by the famous people in our field.

Our papers might also just simply be better, because of all the ideas we would be having.

Don’t Worry, I’m Still Citing Men

After this citation overhaul, my reference list was still majority male first authors. You need to cite what is relevant, and in a lot of cases this work is by men. One reason is that over the history of ecology, there is a lot more work published by men than by women, especially the farther back you go. [4]

Plus, if you need to cite a classic paper, it doesn’t matter who it’s by. That’s the one you need to cite. That’s a second thing. [5]

And likewise, if you need to cite something about your specific study organism or system, there might be only a handful (or a few handfuls) of people in the world who publish on this very specialized niche. They are who they are. If you need to cite peer-reviewed literature, you may have limited choices, and you need to cite the best and/or most relevant work out of that array. [6]

So there are a lot of reasons you can’t just take your reference list and manipulate it towards 50/50 gender equality. I want to make it completely clear: I am not advocating for a departure from citing good and relevant science!

When I mentioned this idea to colleagues – that citing women was a seemingly small, basic thing that we could do in our everyday lives as scientists to make a difference in structural biases – some were deeply uncomfortable that if they sought out work by women, then they would have to leave out other papers.

Listen: there is so much research out there, it boggles the mind. It’s growing exponentially. It’s insane. And in no paper do we cite all the possibly important research on a topic. We’re going to leave things out anyway. It’s just that now, we seem to be structurally leaving out work by women. Again, to overcome this bias is going to require intentionality. This is not a problem that we can just hope will go away because we are good people and don’t mean to cause harm.

No matter what we do, we’re going to keep citing a lot of great research by men.

Tokenism?

Among women, there was another layer. Many of the women I talked to did not want to be cited just because they were women and someone needed to move their reference list towards gender parity. They wanted to be cited because someone genuinely thought their research was the best and most relevant.

And I get that. I was invited to give a talk once because the organizer was looking for a replacement female speaker after the originally-invited woman couldn’t participate. I was so excited for this opportunity, but at the same time it felt weird to get it explicitly because they were looking for a woman.

I’m not sure what to do with this concern, but I think it comes back to proper citation practice. Is your work relevant to the topic, and being cited correctly? Then you deserve to be cited. If papers by women are accepted less often and cited less often, then part of the reason you are not currently being cited might be simply because someone isn’t familiar with your work.

And The Inevitable Question, Does Quality Limit Equality

Finally, we had some conversations about whether this might be because women’s work just wasn’t as good as men’s.

It’s pretty hard to assess that (although the paper I started this blog post with tried to, by using journal impact factor as a covariate).

I have two thoughts. One is that I doubt it’s true. There was an interesting graphic and paper that went around Twitter – about economics, not ecology – showing that papers by women are better written than those by men, that women incorporate reviewer comments more often, and that they improve at presenting information over the course of their careers.

It’s provocative and I’m not sure if it’s also true in my field or not, but I believe it. I think we are culturally trained from a young age to try to please, and so we might be likely to try to pacify reviewers, and to make a revision extra perfect if it was rejected the first time around.

Also, in the sciences, women have to be better to be evaluated as being as qualified as men.

Second, about the content. If it is possible that the data and experiments presented by women are less strong, why might that be?

It is interesting to think about how structural problems would lead to this. Could it be because women get less funding to do their research, and thus might have less resources or support? Could it be that women are asked to do more departmental service and teaching, and have less time to do research?

If the research really is worse – which I’m not convinced it is, but there’s little way to objectively assess, at least not for a dataset of any size – this very well might be a result of the same structural issues that cause the citation patterns.

What Next

What do you think about this? Are there any other ways to work on this problem?

Notes

[1] Impact factor is not a perfect measure of journal quality. It is an estimate of how often work there gets cited, which is a traditional metric for how important it is. For any individual paper, the impact factor of the journal it is published in doesn’t say much about the quality of that paper. However, I think it was the best covariate the authors could find to control for the differences in quality between papers when comparing men’s and women’s outcomes. Also, for better or for worse scientists pay attention to impact factors, so it may affect citation practice even if it’s not an actual metric of “quality” per se.

[2] I have an interesting, harebrained idea about this: if papers by women are less likely to be accepted, do good papers with women as last authors end up in lower-impact journals? That could explain why the better-cited papers from those journals are by women. Totally spitballing here.

[3] Citations shouldn’t define one’s value as a scientist, colleague, or employee anyway, but… that’s a discussion for another day.

[4] Is it really though? Women probably contributed to many important ideas. They typed the manuscripts. Maybe they did some of the work. There are tons of cases in science where people had the same idea independently, and one person got famous, and the other didn’t. Sometimes both these people were white men. I’m guessing there’s a lot of times when some of these people were women, minorities, scientists from outside Europe and North America, and people who were/are otherwise excluded from the elite science community.

[5] Given what I just wrote, I think I – and we all – need to put more effort into finding papers that were written around the same time as the famous ones that “came up with” ideas, and represent contributions of the community-building of those ideas by other people.

[6] When you’re looking for very specific things, there might be a lot of important and relevant data in theses and lower-impact papers by students who did not continue in science. This is valuable literature to search for, and might expand what you think the contributions of women and minorities are, given that these people are less likely to continue in academic careers either by choice or by exclusion.

Ganghoferlauf 50k and Feeling Like A Skier

At the finish of the Ganghoferlauf classic marathon. (Photo via Ganghoferlauf Facebook page)

Wednesday night I couldn’t fall asleep.

We were supposed to leave on Friday to go to Austria for a Saturday ski race, and the forecast was for rain all day on race day. Would there even be snow left, after the crazy-long warm snap that we’ve had plus even more rain? Would I make it through 50 k of being out in the rain? Should I just bag the trip if it was going to be miserable?

Racing isn’t my whole life so these questions shouldn’t have weighed so heavily, but the next 48 hours provided me with so many highs and lows.

I traveled to Austria. I was disappointed with the ski conditions. I loved our hotel setup! I despaired about the wax. I had a really fun 25 k of racing! I felt so alone and discouraged and stopped dead in the middle of the trail to eat a snack. I got my motivation back and careened another 25 k around the course, stuffing my mouth with Clif ShotBloks along the way.

I felt like a skier. That was the best part, the highest high.

And then, when I crossed the finish line exhausted, a guy asked to take my picture. Sure, why not? I smiled, with the Tirolean Alps in the background. As the shutter clicked, I heard the announcer.

“And this is, from Switzerland, Chelsea Little, she is the third woman to come into the finish after 50 k.”

What?

After all that angst, it turned out to be a very good day.

***

I’m not good at giving up on things, but the idea of skipping the race really was going through my head mid-week. I didn’t know what to do. I’d imagined this classic marathon, the Ganghoferlauf, as my season finale. It looked like it was literally going to rain on my parade.

By Thursday the forecast had changed, and it looked like it would be right around freezing and with a light snow at the start, warming up to the mid-40’s and sunny over the course of the race. How do you wax for that?

I’m not good at giving up on things so I got on the train on Friday, but somehow things didn’t get better once we got to Leutasch.

Midwinter skiing this ain’t. Note all the dirt in the snowbank in the left foreground.

I tested klister on Friday afternoon and nothing felt good. My skis alternately slipped and iced up. The snow was basically slush and as we ate dinner, it rained some more. Completely saturated. Lovely.

I had figured I could buy some of the appropriate wax at the expo when I picked up my bib, but there wasn’t really an expo (or a ski shop within a kilometer). The small collection of the klister in my wax box was all I had to work with: Swix base green, KR 45 purple, and one each of Toko green, blue, red, and yellow. Because I’m not good at giving up on things, before bed I re-applied the KR45 and Toko red to one ski each of my test skis – not at all confident either of these things would work the next day – and a thin layer of base green on my race skis.

“Shit, I really wish I had a riller,” I lamented.

“A what?” Steve asked.

“Never mind.” Right. Riller is not a word used by 99.99% of the human population.

Miraculously, I managed to get a good, deep sleep.

I woke up to the fact that it had frozen overnight, which was actually more than I had dared hope for. The tracks would be fast, so I reasoned that I’d have to suffer for much less time than if it had been slush from the start, like I’d been imagining.

But after eating a quick breakfast and hopping on my test skis, I found that both the KR45 and the Toko red were grabby and iced up. Not good. I was practically falling down on the flats they were so grabby. I tried covering them with a warm hardwax, but then I couldn’t kick up the hill.

I saw a fast-looking young woman out testing wax, but she was discussing with her coach/wax tech and was clearly testing more options. I haven’t had a team in years and this was a problem I needed to figure out on my lonely own.

Thinking about the forecast, I picked the KR45, crossed my fingers that the snow would stay relatively frozen, and heated it into a pretty layer on my race skis using the hotel room hairdryer. And then I went to the start.

The days leading up to the race had been so stressful as the weather forecast changed constantly. I was also mentally exhausted from a very intense three-day retreat with my research group. It was a gray damp morning. I had zero confidence in my skis. I have to say, I really did not want to do this race.

Then the gun went off, and the race started.

***

I’ve had a weird year of ski racing, and really of skiing. There was no snow early, so I bagged the race I had planned to do in December because I hadn’t even been on skis once. Then in January I went to Cortina, Italy, to do the Toblach-Cortina 35 k, but it was canceled.

The Ganghoferlauf 50 k was what I picked to make up for that race. A few years ago I went to Seefeld (just a few kilometers away) for the Kaiser Maximilian Lauf, back-to-back 60 k’s where I did the skating and classic races. They were very well organized, on fun trails with beautiful views. So when I was looking for a late-season classic race in central Europe, it was pretty appealing to go back. I booked a spot in Leutasch.

The race start. (Photo via Ganghoferlauf Facebook page)

And as we headed off the line, I felt like I had made a good decision. There were plenty of classic tracks for the first kilometer or so, and I easily had room to pass people despite starting near the back of the pack.

Very early, after about a kilometer and a half, we hit the biggest climb of the whole race. It was steep and long and much of the field immediately got out of the tracks and started herringboning their way up it, occasionally tangling up with each other.

I stayed in the tracks to the right. My purple klister, which an hour earlier when I was testing had been a disaster, was fantastic. I just strided past people and probably had a big grin on my face because I seriously couldn’t believe my luck. Out of a pretty limited wax box, it seemed like I had nailed it.

A kilometer later on the first downhill, I realized that not only was my wax not so grabby that I’d be falling down, but my glide job was also decently fast.

This was going to be fun. In the space of just a few minutes, my entire perspective shifted.

I cruised around the course, and after skiing through a rolling meadow system for about eight kilometers, we hit the flats of the bottom of the Leutasch valley. I was still skiing with packs of people, and just trying to hold a steady pace. At some point, we started up the hill and into the forest on the other side of the valley, and zig-zagged up and down smaller climbs for a few kilometers.

On the downhill of one of these zags, I caught a woman I had seen in front of me for the whole first 15 k of the race. We double-poled along the flat for a while, and after two more sets of uphill zigs and zags, caught another woman.

For the last seven kilometers of the 25 k loop, the three of us skied together, with the occasional guy trying to jump in between us, as they usually do. It was really fun. Johanna and Sanne – our names were on our bibs, so I weirdly felt like I got to know them – were good skiers. They were fun to follow and we had our own little race dynamics doing on, especially through the “Waldloipe” forest loop that had lots of fun ups and downs, twists and turns. Sometimes one of them would sprint over the top of a hill, but the other two of us would usually catch up.

As we looped back through the start/finish area, Sanne pulled away, and then I watched as she and Johanna turned left.

They were doing the 25 k.

Crap.

***

After I signed up for this race, I was describing it to Steve, and mentioned that it was a two-loop 50 k.

“When you have to ski straight past the finish and go out on a second loop, that’s going to be so terrible,” he said, already half laughing at my future anguish.

And oh boy, was he right.

A view from the 8 k meadow loop, the day before the race.

I’d had so much fun skiing with those two women, and I had worked pretty hard to stay with them over the last few kilometers. Maybe it wasn’t the most clever thing to do halfway though a 50 k, but it had felt good. Except now they were gone, the sun had been out for half an hour, and the snow had turned from ice to slush. I was staring at the big climb again, and could barely see anyone in front of me. I turned around and saw only other skiers turning left.

Yes, this was despair.

I realized that I hadn’t eaten any solid food, and stopped and dug out a Clif bar. On a hunch, I had decided to race with my running vest, something I’d never really done before. I knew it would be hot by the end of the race and that I might need more hydration than usual, and it also gave me the chance to carry some klister in case my wax job sucked as the conditions warmed up.

Now, I was very relieved to have the vest because it had snacks in it. There were a few spectators on the side of the trail who weren’t sure how to cheer for me as I stood there eating a bar, but it was completely worth it.

The calories almost immediately made me feel better, and I tackled the hill. I was tired from my ill-advised battle with two 25 k skiers, but my skis definitely didn’t suck. (I later realized this was because my kickzone consisted entirely of pine needles, not that the KR45 was somehow still working.)

The course consisted of little finger-like loops, the zigs and zags up and down hills. Coming out of one such loop I saw that there was another woman coming out of the next loop. I had no chance to catch her – we were separated by maybe two kilometers – but it was nice to see here there.

And coming out of another loop, I saw two other women just beginning it. They were perhaps another two kilometers behind me. This provided some good motivation: they probably wouldn’t catch me unless I really ran out of steam, but this was a marathon so you never know. I had to keep pushing just in case.

For most of the second 25 k I was in no man’s land. I could see a guy in a pea-green suit ahead of me, and sometimes I got within 20 meters, but then he’d pull away again.

I kept drinking from my vest and eating snacks, and trying to push on through the deepening slush. I was striding on the flats because it was so slow, and it made my back hurt. Then there were the road crossings, where the crossing guards let cars through between racers and only sometimes shoveled snow back onto the road. I cringed for my poor race skis, which were surely going to have a permanent reduction in speed by the time the day was over.

By the time I made it through all the zigs and zags and around the Waldloipe – no friends to chase this time – I emerged into the big field to see that there was nobody behind me. It was a relief, because there was a kilometer of flat to go and I had no sprint in me.

I took a purposeful but relaxed double-pole to the finish, and was smiling by the time I crossed the line.

***

On the podium! (Photo by Steve)

It turned out that I was third (out of just 25 women) in the race, and won my entry fee back. It had been impossible to tell my place when I was racing because of all the 25 k racers mixed in with us. So it was a legitimate surprise to realize I was on the podium.

It was a very nice reward at the end of the season, and I got a funny antler trophy as a prize.

But the result was just gravy. The best part of the day was feeling like a skier.

As I wrote, it’s been a weird year for me for skiing. In some ways it has been great; I have done a fair amount of skiing in some of my favorite places, including making time before work once a week many weeks (okay, getting to work extremely late once a week many weeks…).

But I’ve raced a lot less than planned – the Ganghoferlauf was just my third race of the year. The first race was not a positive experience. The second race was pretty fun, but on my “home” tracks in Einsiedeln and quite low-key.

In this 50 k, I felt like I was competing. I had a blast skiing with the sixth- and seventh-place women in the 25 k. I was engaged and focused, using my technique and my strength.

And then came the hard part: going another 25 k alone. It was hard, but I did it!

I did it because I’m decently fit and I planned my training to be rested (physically, if not mentally) for this race.

I did it because I used my experience and logic and a little bit of luck to make good skis.

I did it because diagonal stride is my favorite.

I did it because I wanted to use every tool I had to get to the finish line fastest.

In that lonely loop, I still felt like a skier.

I live in a city where it rarely snows, but skiing is what I love. Sometimes I feel like I’m not a skier anymore because I can’t ski out the backdoor and I don’t have a team or skier training buddies. Sometimes I get to the ski trail and I feel uncoordinated and floundering. Or I get to a race and I look at all the skinny, strong, fast-looking people in trendy ski gear with this year’s skis and boots, and I feel like I’m not one of them.

Those aren’t the things that define who is a skier and who isn’t, but sometimes it feels like it.

When I get to feel like an actual skier – which I am – it’s the best feeling.

Finally, My Almost-Perfect Davos Ski Day

Midway up the Sertig valley, striding along the classic tracks. This is what dreams are made of.

(Before I start: I’ve been featured two places online recently, talking about being a scientist. Check out Episode 4 of the MEME Stream podcast talking about my research on climate change in the arctic tundra, grad school in Europe, and the importance of hobbies (like skiing!). And fellow ecologist xc-skier Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie invited me onto the Plos Ecology blog to talk about reading a lot of papers and combatting imposter syndrome.)

If you’re a cross-country skier, you have probably heard of Davos. There’s a World Cup there every year, and it’s also a favorite training camp location for the U.S. Ski Team, among others. There are always blog posts and Instagram stories showing sunshine and powder days that recharge the soul.

Despite living in Switzerland for four years – and visiting a few times before that – I’ve never had what I’d consider a great Davos ski day.

The best part of the Davos trail network is probably its extensive classic-only trails which go up long side valleys out of town. When I was living and working there in the summer of 2013, these were some of my favorite places to get out for a hike or rollerski, and my gateway to mountain passes.

I immediately looked forward to coming back in the winter so I could ski them.

When I was in Davos for the World Cup in 2017, it had snowed, so I wanted to explore the Dischma valley. They hadn’t groomed yet though. D’oh.

But things didn’t really work out. For several years I went to the December World Cups to work for FasterSkier, but those years happened to be times when there was barely any snow, just a snowfarmed loop on the race course. (It’s been a bad few years.) This year, there was apparently good skiing, but I was at a conference in the UK that weekend.

I went back a few times to skate, but then you can’t access those long valley trails. And last year I had a long classic ski in a rain/snowstorm, where I did traipse up one of the valleys, but visibility was basically zero and the huge temperature swing made my classic wax a complete disaster.

So I’ve been to ski in Davos at least once each year, but I’ve never had the kind sunny alpine day that dreams are made of.

This really is my last winter in Switzerland, and I realized at some point that I was running out of chances. So on Sunday I woke up early and took the first train to Graubunden. Davos is quite far away (by Swiss standards), so even catching that train, I only arrived just before nine.

If you’ve been watching World Championships, you know that the Alps have been going through something of a heat wave. Switzerland is no different than Austria in that regard, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I stuffed hardwax ranging from blue to red into my drink belt and crossed my fingers that I wouldn’t need klister instead.

Scenery.

Click. Click. Into my skis. It was cold when I arrived, and after days of freeze-thaw cycles the tracks were fast as I double-poled down to Frauenkirch, at the bottom of the main valley. I skied in and out of the shadow of the steep hillsides, and through hollows by the river where the cold had really settled overnight.

But an hour in, the sun had come over the mountains and suddenly, it was hot. I stopped to re-wax my skis. Blue clearly wasn’t right anymore.

I meandered through the Junkerboden, a forested hillside. After a week of relatively hard (for me) training, my legs were feeling tired as I climbed the steep trail through the woods and traversed its switchbacks. But this is a part of the trail system that relatively few people visit, and I sank into the quiet and peace of the forest.

Then I dropped down to the Sertig valley proper, and all of a sudden I was in 50-degree heat and immediately sweating. I took off my headband, unzipped my jacket, took a swig of water. My skis were slow, but miraculously my wax was still kind of kicking.

Heat is not my strong point, and I bogged down as I ticked through the kilometers up the valley. But it was so beautiful. I’d stop to take a breather and look around, captivated by the scenery. This wasn’t the extra-blue skiing of my dreams, but the sun was so bright, the mountains so crisp, the sky so blue. Aside from overheating, it was everything I’d imagined the valley to be as I hiked and ran it so many summers ago.

Everyone I passed was smiling, as if we couldn’t believe our good luck to be out here in the sun. It was the kind of day where even if you don’t feel great, you feel happy.

And I was particularly happy to be striding up the valley. Every time I classic ski, I’m reminded that it’s one of my favorite things in the whole world. It’s so natural to settle into the rhythm of kick, kick, kick. In this snow, a little less glide.

Nearing the top of the valley.

I eventually reached the top of the valley, where you are faced with a large mountain face and, for a ski tour or hike, the choice of two mountain passes, one left and one right. For cross-country skiers, it’s the end of the road, although you can stop for food or drink at a restaurant looking out across the meadow.

Sweaty. Go away tropical heat wave, I want winter back.

I opted out, and instead headed back down the valley. Despite the snow rapidly becoming slush, I whizzed down the trail, trying to thread between the skiers coming up the narrow trail. The fresh air on my face a welcome respite from the heat. Several kilometers were gone in no time, and I was back in the main valley, heading towards town.

By the time I clicked out of my skis, it was almost 60 degrees, and I was happy I had done this ski today. Unless the weather pattern changes drastically, I’m not sure how long the lower-elevation trails will last. If it hadn’t been so hot, I would have skied another hour easily, but I was wiped out from the heat.

It wasn’t a completely perfect day, but maybe that doesn’t exist. I got to see the mountains, and the groups of classic skiers striding ant-like up the narrow classic-only trail through the valley. The next day my face was a little more tan and my legs a little more tired, and I added one more happy memory to all my summer memories of Davos.

Keep on skiing.

From #fieldworkfail to Published Paper

Amphipods are, unfortunately, not very photogenic. But here you can see some of my study organisms swimming around in a mesocosm in the laboratory, shredding some leaf litter like it’s their business (because it is).

It can be intimidating to try to turn your research into an academic paper. I think that sometimes we have the idea that a project has to go perfectly, or reveal some really fascinating new information, in order to be worth spending the time and effort to publish.

This is the story of not that kind of project.

One of my dissertation chapters was just published in the journal Aquatic Ecology. You can read it here.

The project originated from a need to show that the results of my lab experiments were relevant to real-world situations. To start out my PhD, I had done several experiments with amphipods – small crustacean invertebrates common to central European streams – in containers, which we call mesocosms. I filled the mesocosms with water and different kinds of leaves, then added different species and combinations of amphipods. After a few weeks, I saw how much leaf litter the amphipods had eaten.

We found that there were some differences between amphipod species in how much they ate, and their preferences for different kinds of leaves based on nutrient content or toughness (that work is here). But the lab setting was quite different than real streams.

So I worked with two students from our limnoecology course (which includes both bachelors and masters students) to develop a field experiment that would test the same types of amphipod-leaf combinations in streams.

We built “cages” out of PVC pipe with 1-mm mesh over the ends. We would put amphipods and leaf litter inside the cages, zip tie them to a cement block, and place the cement block in a stream. We did this in two places in Eastern Switzerland, and with two different species of amphipod.

After two weeks, we pulled half the cement blocks and cages out. After four weeks, we pulled the other half out. Moving all those cement blocks around was pretty tough. I think of myself as strong and the two students were burly Swiss guys, but by the time we pulled the last cement block up a muddy stream bank I was ready to never do this type of experiment again.

Elvira and our two students, Marcel and Denis, with an experimental block in the stream. This was the stream with easy access; the other had a tall, steep bank that was a real haul to get in and out of.

Unfortunately, when I analyzed the data, it was clear that something had gone wrong. The data made no sense.

The control cages, with no amphipods in them, had lost more leaf litter than the ones with amphipods – which shouldn’t be the case since they only had bacteria and fungi decomposing them, whereas the amphipod cages had shredding invertebrates. And the cages we had removed after two weeks had lost more leaf litter than the ones we left in the stream for four weeks.

These are not the “results” you want to see.

We must have somewhere along the way made a mistake in labeling or putting material into cages, though I couldn’t see how. I tried to reconstruct what could have gone wrong, if labels could have gotten swapped or material misplaced. I don’t have an answer, but the data weren’t reliable. I couldn’t be sure that there was some ecological meaning behind the strange pattern. It could have just been human error.

I felt bad for the students I was working with, because it can be discouraging to do your first research project and not find any interesting results. It wasn’t the experience I wanted to have given them.

My supervisor and I agreed, with regret, that we had to redo the experiment. I was NOT HAPPY. I wasn’t mad at him, because I knew he was right, but I really didn’t want to do it. I’ve never been less excited to go do fieldwork.

But back out into the field I went with my cages and concrete blocks (and no students this time). In case we made more mistakes, we designed the experiment a bit differently. We had one really well-replicated timepoint instead of two timepoints with less replicates, and worked in one stream instead of two.

Begrudgingly, we hauled the blocks to the stream and then hauled them back out again.

Cages zip-tied to cement blocks and deployed in the stream. You can see the brown leaf litter inside the enclosure.

And then for 2 ½ years I ignored the data, until my dissertation was due, at which point I frantically analyzed it and turned it into a chapter.

The draft that I initially submitted (to the journal and in my dissertation) was not what I would call my best work. My FasterSkier colleague Gavin generously offered to do some copy-editing, and I was ashamed at how many mistakes he found. I hope he doesn’t think less of me. A fellow PhD student, Moritz, also read it for me, and had a lot of very prescient criticisms.

But through all of that and peer review, the paper improved. Even though it is not going to change the course of history, I’m glad that I put together the analyses and published it, because we found two kind of interesting things.

The first was about species differences. I had used two amphipod species in the experiment (separately, not mixed together). Per capita, one species ate a lot more/faster than the other… but that species was also twice as big as the other! So per biomass, the species had nearly identical consumption rates.

The metabolic theory of ecology is a powerful framework that explains a lot of patterns we see in the world. One of its rules is that metabolism does not scale linearly with body size (here’s a good blog post explainer of the theory and data and here’s the Wikipedia article). That is, an organism twice as big shouldn’t have twice the metabolic needs of a smaller organism. It should need some more energy, but not double.

This relates to my results because the consumption of leaf litter was directly fueling the amphipods’ metabolism. They may have gotten some energy and resources from elsewhere in the cages, but we didn’t put any plant material or other food sources in there. So we could expect to roughly substitute “consumption” for “metabolism” in this body size-metabolism relationship.

Metabolic theory was originally developed looking across all of life, from tiny organisms to elephants, so our twofold size difference among the two amphipod species isn’t that big. That makes it less surprising that the two species have the same per-biomass food consumption rates. But it’s still interesting.

The second interesting result had to do with how the two species fed when they were offered mixtures of different kinds of leaves. Some leaves are “better”, with higher nutrient contents, for example. Both species had consumed these leaves at high rates when they were offered those leaves alone, and had comparatively lower consumption rates when offered only poor-quality leaves.

In the mixtures, one species ate the “better” leaves even faster than would be expected based on the rates in single-species mixtures. That is, when offered better and worse food sources, they preferentially ate the better ones. The other species did not exhibit this preferential feeding behavior.

I thought this was mildly interesting, but I realized it was even cooler based on a comment from one of our peer reviewers. (S)he pointed out that this meant that streams inhabited by one species or the other might have different nutrient cycling patterns, if it was the species that preferentially ate all of the high-nutrient leaves, or not. We could link this to neat research by some other scientists. It was a truly helpful nudge in the peer review process.

So, while I had hated this project at one point, it’s finally published. And I think it was worth pushing through.

It was not a perfect project, but projects don’t have to be perfect for it to be worth telling their stories and sharing their data.

My Guide To Cross-Country Skiing in Eastern Switzerland

 

A lot of people have asked me: where should I go cross-country skiing? Or, I’d like to try cross-country skiing – but where can I go around Zurich?

Well, I’ve made a post with the answers! Check out my guide to cross-country skiing in Eastern Switzerland, HERE! I’ve picked 12 favorite spots to recommend, and summarized the trail system, how to get there, rental and ticket information, and where you can leave a backpack of dry clothes.

If you run through those suggestions too fast, I add 10 more possibilities at the bottom, with fewer details.

Happy skiing! Please get out there and enjoy winter!